Saturday, January 23, 2016

Anonymous Nastiness

"You and Miss Holland and Miss Megan will feel much better after coffee and eggs and bacon. Murder is a nasty business on an empty stomach." (The Moving Finger: Kindle Locations 7850-7851)
Murder is always a nasty business, though in Agatha Christie there's rarely a graphic description of the horrors. In The Moving Finger, details of the murders are even less emphasized than usual. The real mystery here is about the writer of a series of anonymous letters that almost all the central characters in the village receive. Each letter contains an accusation of moral wrongdoing, especially of adultery or illicit relationships; though the villagers don't find these accusations credible, they repeatedly say "Where there's smoke there's fire." In a way, it's amazing that the effect of these essentially deranged accusations have such a strong impact.

Attempts by the characters in the book to understand the nastiness of the person who composed the letters is particularly fascinating. All three of the following explanations were advanced prior to the murders:

The village doctor's explanation: "... the anonymous letter pest arises from one of two causes. Either it’s particular— directed at one particular person or set of people, that is to say it’s motivated, it’s someone who’s got a definite grudge (or thinks they have) and who chooses a particularly nasty and underhand way of working it off. It’s mean and disgusting but it’s not necessarily crazy, and it’s usually fairly easy to trace the writer— a discharged servant, a jealous woman— and so on. But if it’s general, and not particular, then it’s more serious. The letters are sent indiscriminately and serve the purpose of working off some frustration in the writer’s mind. As I say, it’s definitely pathological. And the craze grows." (Kindle Locations 6422-6428).

The narrator, Mr. Jerry Burton, a recently transplanted Londoner in the village says: "As I say, they’ve got a screw loose. It satisfies some urge, I suppose. If you’ve been snubbed, or ignored, or frustrated, and your life’s pretty drab and empty, I suppose you get a sense of power from stabbing in the dark at people who are happy and enjoying themselves." (Kindle Locations 6695-6697)

The village vicar's wife speculates: "Blind hatred… yes, blind hatred. But even a blind man might stab to the heart by pure chance… And what would happen then, Mr Burton?" (Kindle Locations 7017-7018)

Almost at the end, the vicar and his wife call in Miss Jane Marple, whose insight allows the capture of the perpetrator. Like most Agatha Christie novels, it's well-plotted, and I won't give away the ending. And like most Agatha Christie novels, there are lots of food scenes, but if I quoted them, it might begin to be repetitive -- for all my blog posts about Agatha Christie including this one, click here.

Attempt to understand trolls from this site.
Each of the efforts to understand the anonymous culprit seemed to me to have a strange resonance with something that's much more recently emerged in our society: comments by anonymous trolls on the Internet! Mean, disgusting, not necessarily crazy, result of frustration at a snub, needing a sense of power, blind hatred... all these motives clearly drive many of the venomous voices that permeate current social media and anonymous sites that encourage nastiness. To quote the Washington Post:
"In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts argued that anonymous comments sections 'have become havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness, factual inaccuracy and plain nastiness that shocks the tattered remnants of our propriety.' In 2012, Buzzfeed’s John Herrman concluded his informal study of online discussion forums by describing YouTube’s anonymous comments section as 'the room with the million monkeys and the million typewriters, but they haven’t even gotten half-way though Hamlet yet because they’re too busy pitching feces at one another.'" -- source: "It's time to end anonymous comments," August 19, 2014.
There are also tons of efforts to explain what makes all those anonymous trolls tick -- it's entertaining that Agatha Christie seems to have had a theory about them so long ago!


Jens Zorn said...

And you haven't even mentioned the anonymous comments one finds on sports websites!
I'd guess that economic interests hinder any tendency to demand actual names on comments: fewer people would make comments, thus fewer eyeballs on the web page, thus fewer clicks on adjacent on-line ads, .....

Jeanie said...

I remember the "Moving Finger." But I had forgotten the descriptions. How clever and accurate you are to compare these to trolls. I've been lucky with anonymous comments -- a few spam here and there but nothing really mean. But I've seen it happen (recently) on another blog and sad it is when that happens.